Word Count Anxiety
If you get too anxious about your word count, take a moment to go outside and enjoy the weather. Unless you're in the current heat wave. Photo by Kate Ota 2020
I follow a lot of agents on Twitter and whenever they do an Ask Agent, they usually get a question concerning word count. Often, it’s very specific to what that author is writing and they are worried about over or under writing. “Will it hurt my chances of getting an agent?” they always ask. Sometimes they say “George R.R. Martin got away with it, why can’t I?”
Let’s look at typical word counts, why there are typical word counts, and what an agent will do if you miss the target.
What’s The Right Word Count?
I took the lowest and highest word counts offered from five different sources to find out the approximate window for the most common genres and age groups.
Sources: manuscriptagency.com, litrejections.com, self-publishingschool.com, bookendsliterary.com, writersdigest.com
Genre Word Count Window
Short Story: 500-8,000
Adult Commercial/Literary: 60,000-110,000
Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy: 50,000-150,000
Adult Romance: 40,000-100,000
Adult Historical Fiction: 80,000-120,000
Adult Crime/Thriller/Mystery/Horror: 40,000-100,000
Young Adult (all genres): 50,000-100,000
Middle Grade (all genres): 20,000-55,000
Picture Book (all genres): 0-1,000
Some of those windows are very wide because these sources didn’t necessarily all agree about how low or high you can go. Writer’s Digest had the most restrictive guidelines, while the self-publishing school had the broadest.
Why Do Word Counts Matter?
In this debate, people will always mention the exceptions. Harry Potter, Song of Ice and Fire, Gone With the Wind, and Lord of the Rings consistently went higher than recommended word counts for their genre or age group. You’ll also notice they made a lot of money or were written a long time ago. While you should believe your work can also succeed, you cannot bet on others believing that too before they read it. And getting someone to read a 90,000 word novel is way easier than getting them to read a 300,000 word one.
Readers expect certain things from books. They want a happily ever after in a romance, they want magic in fantasy, and so on. The same is true of word count, even if readers can’t name a specific number. They’ll see a book on a shelf or a page count online and make the decision right there. Their negative reactions could range from “That’s too short for how much the book costs” to “That’s so big I’ll never finish it.” You want to hit the sweet spot in between.
What Do Agents Do If You Miss the Target?
To have the broadest reach with your book, people have to be willing to pick it up—and that starts with agents if you’re going traditional. Agents don’t have an infinite amount of time to read, and the further outside your expected word count, the less likely they’ll read your book. If you are below the expected count, you may be in trouble too. Either way, the agent has to think about how much work your project needs before it can be sent to publishers. All that work is before anyone gets paid, and agents need to eat too.
Remember when including your word count in your query that you round to the nearest thousand. Even if that means rounding up and thinking you’ll get in trouble. There’s wiggle room in word counts. If you’re 1,000 words outside the ideal, they’ll probably be okay with that. That many words are easy to add or delete. Once you get beyond 5,000 outside the window, you may be in trickier waters. Agency websites may specify this more, so be sure to peruse the whole website before querying.
Right now, my WIP is dancing at the upper edge of the Adult SFF category count, so I’m looking at ways to trim words. I may need to kill a few darlings to feel more confident about my chances of landing an agent. Perhaps next week I’ll go over some word-saving methods.
Have you ever written wildly outside of an expected word count? What’s your favorite book that breaks word count expectations? Or maybe, what’s a book that broke word count expectations to the point you refused to read it? Let’s discuss in the comments!
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